MSA eyes reform for interns

Charlie Bartlett

If an unpaid intern in Minnesota were to bring forward a case of sexual harassment or discrimination, there could be a loophole in current state law that may prevent them from winning the case.

The definition of employee under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which offers workers protections against these issues, does not explicitly include unpaid interns.

As cases of sexual harassment and discrimination of unpaid interns around the country have become more pronounced, student leaders say they’ve become increasingly concerned with what the current law’s wording could mean for unpaid interns.

Minnesota Student Association President Joelle Stangler said she’s worried that a skilled lawyer could find a loophole in the laws.

“It doesn’t look like [unpaid interns] have this protection, and nobody is able to identify where this protection exists,” she said.

Stangler emphasized the importance of offering the same protections to interns as those given to paid employees.

She said she’s been in discussion with several legislators regarding the issue and hopes to get a bill introduced next session that would offer more explicit protections for unpaid interns.

“We’re being very cautious,” Stangler said of the possible legislation. “But from what we can find, it looks like there is a significant loophole.”

MSA Government Relations Director Ryan Olson said the potential bill would be a preventative measure because Minnesota has yet to see a case of harassment or discrimination against an unpaid intern brought forward.

He said the initiative came about after student government leaders at the University of Maryland recently helped introduce a bill to Legislature that gives interns similar protections to those offered to paid employees. It prohibits discrimination against any paid or unpaid intern and gives them access to procedures for resolving sexual harassment cases. 

Stangler said any legislation MSA pushes for would likely follow a similar model.

University of Minnesota General Counsel William Donohue said that while he can’t speak to protections offered to interns under state law, the University’s definition of sexual harassment encompasses all members of the campus community — including both paid and unpaid interns.

Political science sophomore Kayla Goldfarb, who works as an unpaid intern in a Minnesota legislative office for class credit, said her workplace was explicit in terms of the resources it has for interns to settle complaints.

Goldfarb said she has never dealt with these issues but feels confident she would be able to go to her supervisor if a situation arose.

Stangler said there’s also an issue with the definition of “intern” under Minnesota statutes for employment by the state, which defines the position as “an individual who, for a work experience, is receiving academic credit from or is fulfilling an academic requirement of, an accredited educational institution.”

Her discussion with lawmakers has included changing the wording in the statute to include interns who are not being paid or receiving academic credit, but simply working for the experience.

This experience, she said, is often crucial for college students to gain before graduating. 

“[Unpaid interns are] scheduled, they have hours, they have responsibilities, but they’re not paid. They’re paid in experience,” Stangler said.

While she said getting bills passed isn’t always easy, she thinks this legislation wouldn’t be too complicated because it’s simply a matter of getting the wording in laws changed.

“I’m feeling very confident that there is a loophole that could be closed,” Stangler said.